When Girls premiered last spring and devoured the zeitgeist, critics—heck, all of us—coronated creator-star-writer-director Lena Dunham as the voice of a generation. If that’s true, then Jenni Konner, the woman who brought Dunham’s talents to the attention of executive producer Judd Apatow and now acts as Girls’ showrunner, is that voice’s silent partner.
She’s also, as Dunham said in January in her acceptance speech for the Golden Globe for best actress in a TV comedy, “my best friend and the person who I aspire to be.”
When Girls also won the Globe for best TV comedy later in the evening, Konner, in a gorgeous white gown, stood tearfully beaming behind Dunham and clutching actress Allison Williams, who plays Marnie on the show, while Dunham thanked her again. Her face may not be as recognizable as those of Dunham, Williams, and the rest of the stars of Girls. But it’s Konner whom, to a very large degree, we can thank for Girls’ existence in our lives.
After all, it’s Konner who, after seeing Dunham’s film Tiny Furniture on the recommendation of friend and HBO entertainment head Sue Naegle, ran around Hollywood with copies of the DVD, talking up the postgrad coming-of-age indie. “I couldn’t believe the simple story she was telling, how it struck every chord of that time right after school: coming home, seeing your friends, your parents,” she says. “What it was like felt really, really similar to my experience.”
When HBO came calling again, this time with the news that the Tiny Furniture girl—that’s Dunham—had a script deal with the network and needed a supervisor on the show she was working on, it was a bit of fan-girl destiny. Konner had racked up solid résumé working on a slew of TV shows: a writer for Judd Apatow’s short-lived, critically beloved Undeclared and showrunner for the even-shorter-lived sitcoms Help Me Help You and In the Motherhood. Apatow happened to be one of the people to whom Konner had sung Tiny Furniture’s praises. After hearing about the possible HBO series, both wanted to be in the Dunham business.
That’s how Jenni Konner became the 41-year-old woman behind Girls.
As showrunner, Konner writes and produces in addition to a dizzying array of other daily duties that include, she quickly found, acting as a bit of a den mother to Dunham and the 20-something actresses she works with every day. She compares herself, brilliantly, to the Mrs. Garrett character from The Facts of Life. “I’m in charge of a lot of young women,” she says. “They occasionally come to me for advice and I have to wrangle them. Sadly, there’s not really a Blair, though.”
It’s a unique position to be in. Two decades separate her from not only Dunham and the other actresses, but from the characters and the situations being written about on the show. Dunham’s Hannah Horvath works at a Brooklyn coffee shop and can’t decide how she feels about the various men in her life, let alone herself. Williams’s Marnie Michaels is underemployed, bitterly single, and coming to the startling realization that she doesn’t know what she wants to be when she grows up.
Konner, on the other hand, is all grown up. She has two children—and 8-year-old girl and a 6-year-old boy—and lives with her boyfriend, Emmy-winning director Richard Shepard, who has directed several episodes of Girls. What’s it like, then, to relive her 20s on a daily basis? “It’s a cringefest, and that’s really fun,” she says. “I kind of get to relive it, but then I also get to feel way past it and then smarter than most of it.”
But “definitely not that much wiser,” she quickly adds. “That’s one thing I learned. I really thought I was going to feel wiser.”
Konner’s own Hannah Horvath years were spent as New York’s most in-demand temp. She had worked in retail and for Tribeca Productions before deciding to devote herself to becoming a writer, working as a temp to pay the bills. It was during the big Internet boom. “All of my peers were becoming bajillionaires,” she says. “There was no one from college left in the temp force.” In a turn that would make any of Girls’ 20-somethings seethe with jealousy, she was then able to negotiate higher pay, set her own hours, and even turn down jobs as she pleased.
It’s Apatow who gave her and her former writing partner Ali Rushfield their first big breaks, hiring them for Undeclared. When the series was canceled, they worked on Help Me Help You and In the Motherhood before Konner struck out on her own. She booked several gigs as a “script doctor,” hired specifically to flesh out the female characters in otherwise male-driven films like Dinner for Schmucks and Red.
“The weirdest one I did it on was Transformers 3,” she said, referring to being hired to add some dimension to Victoria’s Secret model Rosie Huntington-Whiteley’s character. “I don’t even to this day understand that movie, because I cannot understand science fiction and robots. But I tried to help with the feelings.”
Such doctoring is certainly not needed on Girls. When it premiered, critics giddily showered it with bouquets of roses, many going so far as to call it monumental. “Girls represents an exciting moment in television history because ... it not only makes great use of the medium, but has the creative guts to realign it for a new century and a new generation,” wrote David Wiegand at the San Francisco Chronicle. Tim Goodman at The Hollywood Reporter called it “one of the most original, spot-on, no-missed-steps series in recent memory.”
Does Mrs. Garrett agree with those critical assessments branding Girls as generation-defining—or, more stressfully, feel any sort of duty to live up to the duty such a label bestows? “I would be a sociopath if I was going to take on the idea that we had that kind of responsibility,” she says. “A, I’m not sure it’s true, and B, I don’t know if I thought it was true what I would do with it.”
But there are certainly those who afford Girls with such status. In fact, just before she chatted with The Daily Beast during a break from the Girls writer’s room in Los Angeles (the staff is currently hard at work breaking stories for Season 3), Konner received an email saying that her Golden Globe is finally engraved and ready to be delivered to her—a token of the series’s zeitgeist-seizing debut.
While her son, for one, can’t wait for the statue to arrive—“He’s pissed that the Globe didn’t come yet,” Konner says. “The trophy is it for him”—it’s the scattered memories of the night that Konner cherishes. Specifically, there was the moment right after the Girls team walked off stage from the show’s win. Daniel Day-Lewis passed them, put his thumbs up, and said, “Good job, girls.”
“There was so much screaming, they shushed us,” Konner remembers. “It was crazy.”
Co-piloting a show that receives such accolades is one thing. Rare is to be able to do it with your best friend, which is the status Dunham now holds in Konner’s life. The 26-year-old is godmother to one her children. They obsessively message each other while watching Scandal. (“I’m obsessed.”) While Konner was speaking with The Daily Beast, Dunham was a few floors above texting her about when she was going to pop in and say hi. The night before, Konner, Dunham, and Apatow had been excitedly emailing each other about an episode of Girls they’re all writing together for Season 3. Konner estimates that she talks to Dunham on the phone “100 times a day.”
“We just really love spending time together,” she says, “which is good because we mostly have to be together all day every day.” Simply, Konner says, she’s in awe of the young Hollywood power player—the two are already reportedly working on another HBO series together.
“What I always think about when I think about Girls is Lena being in a scene where she’s very vulnerable, possibly directing, acting, and she’s probably written the dialogue. It’s 2 in the morning. Everyone’s tired. Everyone’s grumpy. And she has a smile on her face and kindness for everyone who interacts with her.”
And what are the chances that the scene Dunham is shooting is based on a real story from Konner’s life?
“Not telling. Never telling. Never ever ever. Not in a million years.”